By Maribel Morey
In his speech at Selma last month, President Barack Obama highlighted the inconsistencies between America’s egalitarian ideals and its history of racial discrimination. He stressed, though, that Americans have sought to correct their behavior to conform to their ideals: “The American instinct requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shape up the status quo. That’s America. That’s what makes us unique.” The idea that America’s moral failures on race are ultimately redeemed by its egalitarian ideals was popularized by Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 work, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The massive two-volume study has shaped the discussion of racial discrimination in the United States, from President Truman to President Obama.
Much of the impact of An American Dilemma stemmed from its impressive deployment of social science. The vast bulk of Myrdal’s project was devoted to presenting reams of data collected during his team’s three years of studying race relations in the United States. However, the idea that captured the nation’s imagination—that Americans are an exceptionally moral people whose history of racial discrimination is really one of moral failure and ultimate redemption—was not grounded in empirical social science research. Rather, it was an untested hypothesis intended both to motivate leading white Americans to address racial discrimination in the country and to burnish the image of the United States during the Second World War.
Americans today are quite aware of racial discrimination, but even a half-century after the civil rights movement, still uncertain how to address it. An American Dilemma popularized a flattering image of the American people, but its description of the American approach to race was an untested theory. Seventy years later, the public conversation on race continues to rely on an approach grounded more in wishful thinking than in hard fact.